As Minnesota settles into bitter cold, farmers already prepared

Despite recent snowfall, 95 percent of the state’s corn acreage was harvested by Sunday.

by Haley Madderom

Tuesday was the nation’s coldest November morning on record in almost four decades, with all 50 states hitting low temperatures at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

But after riding out last year’s polar vortex, many Minnesota farmers took precautionary measures for the recent frigid weather, and University of Minnesota research is exploring how to protect their fields during the cold months.

In fact, most of the state’s farmers had completely harvested their crops by last week’s snowfall, said Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a Willmar, Minn.-based University Extension regional educator in crops and soils.

“They heard it was coming, so they put in a lot of extra hours to put the crop out,” she said, adding that other farmers missed a crucial chance to harvest.

By Sunday, 95 percent of Minnesota’s corn acreage was harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those who did not gather their crop yield before snowfall will have to wait for snow drifts to melt — and for the ground to stay solid enough so that a 20-ton combine can traverse fields without sinking too deeply into the soil, DeJong-Hughes said.

Ideal crop yields depend on the perfect balance of moisture during winter and spring, she said. Though heaps of snow can add moisture to the soil, when it’s combined with constant spring downpours, it can lead to erosion and restrict the planting season.

“That’s the problem with the weather — you just never know,” DeJong-Hughes said. “There’s a saying: ‘Tell me the weather and I’ll tell you how to farm.’”

Some University students in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences have had to head home for several weekends this fall to help their family farms harvest in anticipation of early snow, said Bill Ganzlin, director of CFANS Student Services.

Corn and soybean farmer Brian Thalmann said he, too, was forced to reap his crops early at his farm, which is based in Plato, Minn., about 50 miles west of the Twin Cities.

The move rounded out what he said was a shortened farming season that started late for planters and ended early with frost.

“The entire year of 2014 was the worst year we’ve had for weather conditions in the last 30 years,” Thalmann said.

His farm lost about 40 percent of its crop production this year because of poor weather conditions. He said as his profits sank, along with corn and soybean prices dropping, it was a financially tough season.

“The reason you pay the [crop] insurance premium each year is for a year like this,” Thalmann said.

But agronomy and plant genetics professor Kevin Smith said his experimental barley plant actually welcomes early batches of snow.

“At least a few inches of snow will … protect the plants and insulate them, and increase the chance that they’ll survive the winter,” he said.

Smith is part of a University research initiative called Forever Green that’s developing cover crops to maintain soil quality throughout the winter. By shielding fields from brutal weather and other elements, cover crops prevent erosion and nitrogen runoff, consume carbon dioxide emissions during the offseason and maintain soil nutrient levels, he said.

“You want to avoid the situation where you’ve plowed up the ground and you have this bare ground exposed for six months of the year,” Smith said.

Although Thalmann is frustrated with the poor season, he is hoping for better crop conditions in the future.

“We have the second-longest stretch of below-freezing weather ever in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “It definitely makes it more challenging for those of us in agriculture to deal with the wild swings in the weather.”